Why, oh why ?

Celeste's picture

Why aren't graphic design history books as thoroughly documented as art history books ? I'm a French graphic design teacher and I'm struggling every damn week to find proper description data of posters, magazines, ephemera, etc. (size, printing technique, etc.) for my graphic design/typography history course — when these facts are commonplace for any painting in any art history book. Are these concerns completely irrelevant ? Am I the only teacher around with this kind of problem ?
For instance, does ANYONE know the exact size of Swiss « Neue Grafik » magazine, launched in 1958 by Vivarelli, Neuburg, Lohse and Müller-Brockmann ? Thank you very much.

PS : Please forgive me for my poor command of English writing.

crossgrove's picture

Bienvenue, Stéphane.

I can't answer your question about format and printing in design reviews, but a small bit of help could be had from abebooks to fill in the gaps. Not everyone who sells there gives complete information, but sometimes people are very thorough. I think of it because items like Neue Grafik are the sort of thing I see for sale there. Search for the item, and if anyone is offering one, see their description.

Your command of English is superb, and sadly much better than that of many Americans.

Nick Shinn's picture

Are these concerns completely irrelevant ?

No, but I don't think they make much difference.
I recently went to an exhibition, Avant-Garde Graphics 1918-1934, from the Merrill C. Berman collection. The catalog was very well done, and indeed has size and media annotated in the List of Works at the back. But in the front of the book where the reproductions are, there is no mention of size in their captions. This is extremely misleading, as a huge work like Theo Ballmer's "buro" poster of 1928 is reproduced smaller than magazine covers. There is no sense of scale. It's all about layout: the layout of the history book, and the layout of the works shown in it.

Ideally, works should be shown in correct relative scaling, and with an excerpt of type at 100%, because the effect of typography is, of course, fundamentally size-specific.

For an article in Druk No.8 (171mm x 314mm, CMYK offset on uncoated stock, perfect bound, soft cover, 2001, edited by Jan Middendorp, published by FontShop Belgium), I showed type specimens at 100%, but was not able to reproduce the pages they came from at a consistent relative size. The reason is that a reproduction of a large magazine page, already considerably shrunk, would have been next to a reproduction of a small magazine page surrounded by white space. To the reader, it would seem strange that the smaller page wasn't the same size as the larger one, when there was space for that, and the layout would have looked nice and consistent.

In general, it seems that the expectation of a design history book is that the layout should look sweet and tasty, and this is more important than mere documentation.

At the other extreme is brilliant research with abysmal reproductions -- two examples which spring to mind are "Spaces of Type", with illustrations of Aldine books that are poor photocopies, and Alphabets to Order, where many of the scans of 19th century type books could have easily been improved by a little photoshop work with a gradient mask.

The best magazine reproductions I have come across are in the catalog of the Fotografía Pública exhibition, where the documents have been opened, flattened with glass, and photographed and reproduced with a vignetted dropshadow, as objets. (This was also the technique I used for my Druk article.) However, the dimensions of the works are not included in the Fotografía book.

Another outstanding documentation is Baker and Bretano's The World on Sunday, where 1890s newspapers were photographed using a view camera and reproduced in a large book.

blank's picture

This is a pretty crappy excuse, but it's probably because graphic design history is a pretty new field, and most of the people writing the books are not historians, they're designers. These books are not written as part of a grand tradition that's evolved since Vasari wrote the Lives. They're also often writing the books alone, without a cadre of interns to do things like excessive fact-checking, which doesn't help.

It will get better in time. There are more design history books popping up than ever before, and future authors will be fixing the mistakes of their predecessors.

Celeste's picture

Nick — I agree that the sense of relative scale is much too often sacrified for the sake of a cool layout. The "Avant-Garde Graphics" catalogue you're writing about is indeed not flawless in this respect, but at least the description data is available somewhere in it.
It is very difficult to give students a sense of respect for graphic design history (as something distinct from/as valuable as art history) if crucial data about the physical nature of artefacts seems to be less important in one case than in another (I don' know if I'm making myself perfectly clear here).

ChuckGroth's picture

i don't think the real issue is that the history of the field is short but that graphic design and, shoulder-to-shoulder, type design are (by practical nature) fields of ephemera. it usually wasn't until much after the fact that an item might be looked at with the "hey -- THIS piece might be important someday" viewpoint. that's starting to change, of course, but i can say it wasn't until 15 years ago that the college at which i teach classified graphic design as an "art." before that, it was a "craft," a distinction that carried a lot of connotations with it.

ChuckGroth's picture

interestingly, National Public Radio (US) ran a story somewhat addressing this topic this morning. titled Preservation of Digital Art Poses Challenges, by Laura Sydell, spoke specifically to the fleeting nature of new art and design currently being created, and how much of the ephemera of today will be lost for tomorrow.

charles ellertson's picture

i don’t think the real issue is that the history of the field is short but that graphic design and, shoulder-to-shoulder, type design are (by practical nature) fields of ephemera.

Well, except for books. They were suppose to last, and some thought of that is still carried on today, as witnessed by the "guidelines for permanence and durability of the committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources."

But you're quite right, most other printing is termed "ephemeral," and to a large extent aimed at a very current audience, with an understanding of both time & place. The latter would be as or more important than the technical details such as "what size type," which is often only an an answer to "what fits?"

ChuckGroth's picture

yes, i agree. books have always been different. perhaps some of the lack of information about them was even purposeful, keeping them just a bit more in the realm of the mysterious?

but most magazines -- even Neue Grafik -- have always had a different focus.

even things that eventually are seen as important can be lost in the flood. i am envisioning a 1939 market owner glancing down, reading "Border Skirmishes in Poland," and thinking, "hmmm..." as he wrapped a fish. that same newspaper would be an interesting find in an attic today.

William Berkson's picture

>Well, except for books.

And except for type design. At the Museum of Printing, Larry Oppenberg pointed out that at the time the focus of big companies like Linotype was on selling the machines, and type was a means to that. And there was continual change in the machinery of typesetting and printing from 1850 until the digital age. And it is still going on with direct to plate.

But what turned out to be of most lasting value, Oppenberg--a type designer--pointed out were the typefaces. With every change of technology they were redrawn and revived. The work of Griffo, Garamond, Caslon, Baskerville, Bodoni we still look at daily, when the machines are only in a few museums.

Nick Shinn's picture

except for books.

..appliance instructions (from barometers to dashboards), signage and logos, (The Bass triangle of 1876 famously appears in a painting by Manet.)

The seeming non-importance of physical description is probably more due to graphic design's inherent lack of tangibility as a single objet. Logos and brands evolve, and are scalable.

So discussing such, any particular physical iteration lacks the presence of the single art work, and reproduction of the image becomes as good as the original -- in the way that an ad may be scaled for poster, full page, or smaller.

Celeste's picture

Nick, I agree that a lot of graphic design is quite diconnected from problems of size (and yes, logos and pictograms are indeed scalable). But there are a lot of examples in graphic design history where size matters — Jan Tschichold's advocacy of DIN paper sizes in the 1920s is the first example that comes to my mind, but I'm sure there are many others.

And, I'm very sorry to ask it again — does someone here know the size of "Neue Grafik" ? Pleeeaaaaase…

Nick Shinn's picture

there are a lot of examples in graphic design history where size matters

I think it always matters, I'm just pointing out where the general perception that it doesn't matter may come from. And sorry, I have no idea of the size of "Neue Grafik".

this is display's picture

neue grafik / new graphic design / graphisme actuel
september, 1958 - february, 1965
total of 18 issues - the last issue was a double issue (17/18)
size: 9.75w x 11h (measurement in inches)

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